Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Changing the Way We Approach the Budget

One of the things that really surprised me when I moved to Falls Church six years ago was the remarkable lack of fighting over the city budget, including the school budget. Sure, there were disputes, but for the most part there was enough money to go around so that everyone got at least a little bit of what he or she wanted.

So this was a good thing, right? Not really.

It seemed to me as a newcomer that it meant that the City Council and School Board tried very hard to do everything and accommodate everyone. No one wanted to say “no,” or make one person’s priority seem to have more weight than another person’s priority.

I noticed this trend not only in the budgeting process, but also in the general decision making process. When anything remotely controversial came up, the elected officials would schedule meetings. And even more roundtables, meetings, forums and events.

The process would go something like this: 1) elected officials announce a plan to try something; 2) people would complain; 3) elected officials would reverse course; 4) people on the other side would complain; 5) start again with step 1. This back and forth would continue until time ran out. The end result depended largely on which proposal was on the table when the clock ran out. This process sort of works for budgeting. I say “works” in the sense that budgets have deadlines so a decision has to be made. Other issues, especially issues with no particular deadline, might simply be put off.

We certainly have unique challenges in Falls Church, but our small size provides a unique opportunity for us each to be able to identify and narrow the issues and options.

Of course, at this point whoever did not get his or her way would complain loudly not only about the decision, but also about the process. The complaints usually were that the process was rigged, or the outcome predetermined, or that the players were hiding something.

In my experience, the elected officials were probably not really even capable of rigging the process, or predetermining outcomes, or hiding anything- they honestly were not organized enough to be capable of such shenanigans. They were each trying to do the best they thought they could by trying to accommodate everyone.

Is there a better way? Some folks continue to tell me this is the “Falls Church Way.” I would agree that inclusion is good, listening is good, and deliberation is good. We can continue to do that, but we also need to focus on a better process that includes clearly defining goals and aligning resources with those goals.

I may be a little biased because I came here after spending many years on a school board in a place where every year, even the “good” years, required prioritization. How did we make decisions? We started with an agreement on the goals. We knew there was not enough money to go around, so we spent it carefully. We never split the baby just to appease different factions. Were some people unhappy about the results? Yes, but at the end of the day most of us supported the budget because we had agreed on and followed a process.

I know many folks are going to argue that this sounds too simple, that is cannot work in Falls Church. I also hear from time to time that “the city issues and budget are far more complicated than what you dealt with on the school board.” Since this is an editorial, I am going to editorialize. We certainly have unique challenges in Falls Church, but our small size provides a unique opportunity for us each to be able to identify and narrow the issues and options. Small means we have flexibility, and that everyone has relatively easy access to both know what is going on and influence decisions. Anyone who claims information was hidden has not looked for it very hard.

So how would this approach work in Falls Church? We saw a great demonstration of doing it this way last year with the school budget. The School Board early on recognized that money was tighter. We asked the Superintendent to show us what had to be maintained and all of the potential cuts we could make. We then prioritized these items based on the previously articulated goals. I know at the end of the day some people think the schools asked for too much, and others thought that the schools asked for too little, but most people (and yes, I know, not everyone) seems to think the process was fair, and supported the recommendations.

I think we could do worse than to use a similar process for the whole budget this year.


Ron Peppe is a member of the Falls Church City Council.